Ministry with Monsanto

July 18, 2010

Directors from Monsanto came to the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia for dinner to discuss the ethics of biotechnology. When asked, "will you vow to do no harm," Monsanto replied, "We already do no harm." Listen to Reverend Nate Walker's summary of Monsanto's response to the proposal to develop a modern Hippocratic Oath that could lead the entire field of biotechnology to "do no harm, to do good, and to be just." Click here for the full text:


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    MINISTRY WITH MONSANTO A sermon offered by Reverend Nathan C. Walker on July 18, 2010 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Pottstown for a joint service with members from the Thomas Paine Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Collegeville, Pennsylvania

    Opening Reading Read by Ginni Stiles, Co-Chair of the Ministry Leadership Team of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia

    On January 10, 2010 Reverend Nate publicly invited Mr. Grant, the CEO of Monsanto to meet with a group of interfaith clergy and ethicists to craft a twenty-first-century Hippocratic Oath for the field of biotechnology. The three core principles of which were derived from biomedical ethics. First, the term nonmaleficence refers to the philosophy of Hippocrates, the father of western medicine, whose writings call medical professionals to do no harm. Meaning, at times it can be wiser to do nothing than to do something that may cause more harm than good. The second principle is beneficence: the moral obligation to act for the benefit of others. Monsanto has already produced a public statement to this effect, quote: “We will use sound and innovative science and thoughtful and effective stewardship to deliver high-quality products that are beneficial to our customers and to the environment.” Building upon this pledge, Monsanto has demonstrated the intent to implement a third ethic: distributive justice. When applied to the pursuit of doubling the yield in their core crops in the next two decades, their goal of “feeding the world’s hungry” only becomes feasible through the fair, equitable and appropriate distribution of food. Reverend Nate stated, “By making the pledge to practice distributive justice, beneficence and nonmaleficence, Mr. Grant has the opportunity to lead not only his company but the entire field of biotechnology in creating a 21st century oath, that can be named after him.” He says, “Imagine the unveiling of the Grant Oath calling those who produce genetically modified foods to consider the possible harm that any pursuit of scientific advancement may have on people, animals or the environment. Imagine if Mr. Grant were to leave this enduring legacy to humanity inviting his colleagues to join him in affirming the following pledge: I promise to use my expertise to help and not harm people, animals and the environment. I promise to practice responsibly the ancient ethic of stewardship and the modern principle of sustainability by affirming distributive justice as a moral obligation to benefit the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. The moral invitation to craft such an oath is done with the knowledge that the suffering caused in the past is met with the good will offered in the present, which has the potential to influence our collective future. May it be so. Sermon On Thursday night professionals from Monsanto came to our church for dinner to discuss the ethics of biotechnology. What did we serve? We did what churches do best and prepared a potluck, of course! If you were to share a meal with Monsanto what questions would you ask and how would you ask them? Members of our church family and representatives from the Unitarian Universalist Association prepared a home-cooked vegetarian meal to offer the same hospitality that Monsanto showed when they responded to my November sermon and invited us to come to St. Louis to meet with the CEO, members of their Board of Directors, executives and senior scientists. In fact, they even invited us to their annual shareholder meeting. This sermon is designed to summarize the journey that we have taken together in the last nine months – the conception period for our ministry with Monsanto. Who is Monsanto? Those in my parents’ generation know Monsanto as a chemical company, which was true for most of the 20th century, but it has since become a multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation that produces genetically engineered seeds, such as soy, corn, cotton and now alfalfa. “The market value of the company is $44 billion dollars and last year sold $7.3 billion dollars worth of seeds and seed genes.” Less than 10% of their research budget is spent on chemicals and the rest is split evenly between conventional breeding and genetic engineering. On one hand their conventional research allows for the natural creation of a variety of hybrid seeds that adapt to different soils and weather. On the other hand, their genetic research leads to the discovery of traits found in plants, which is transferred into a seed through a soil bacterium. This can, for example, allow the crop to withstand the herbicide intended to control area weeds so that the crop will produce a higher yield and use less acreage. Monsanto’s vision is to “double the yield of their core crops by 2030 through efficient and sustainable means” in order to “meet the food, fiber and fuel needs of an additional 3 billion people.” Said simply, they believe Monsanto can play one part in a global system of farmers, governments and organizations to help feed the world’s hungry. This mission is not exempt from controversy, as you know. Their work is not free from criticism nor is it immune from the concerns of the organic industry and consumers. In this context, the purpose of this talk is to summarize the answers we received from employees of Monsanto about a wide range of complex questions that derive from our denominational conversation about Ethical Eating. I’ll do so by surveying the issues at hand but first, it is critical to explain the three spiritual practices we have brought to our public advocacy.

    Spiritual Practices for 21st Century Advocacy Doubt The first spiritual practice is doubt. As Unitarian Universalists we pose questions to one another about our beliefs so that we can reflect upon the authenticity of our words, our deeds. In this way, we are aware that doubt plays a powerful role in our moral and spiritual growth and therefore, we seek to water the seed that is in all of us. This seed asks a three-word question: “Are you sure? Are you sure?” I’ve been listening to this seed by asking myself, “Nate, are you sure that your critiques of Monsanto are rooted in the most credible research? Nate, are you sure you are speaking with integrity?” I water this seed of doubt to not only better my character but to model for Monsanto how they can ask, “Are we sure? Are we sure we are doing everything in our power to do no harm, to do good, to be just?” Over the last nine months, members of our church family and employees of Monsanto have found that this seed has guided our dialogue together. We have come to build a relationship based on the mutual commitment to develop a culture of learning based on the second spiritual practice, deep listening and loving speech. Deep Listening & Loving Speech We are all aware of the power of words. Language can cause suffering or if chosen mindfully, and if spoken truthfully, can inspire confidence and hope. In this way, we practice compassionate listening and use words that do not demean one another but inspire us to make meaning about complex matters. As you will see in the questions that we’ve been asking, deep listening and loving speech need not devalue the strength or power of our concerns. This is not a “PC” practice that glosses over reality. It is a way to effectively communicate: to open up conversations rather than use words that lead the listeners to slam their ears shut. Deep listening and loving speech feeds our conscience rather than our aggression. We know all to well how fear and anger can plague our thoughts, our words, our actions, leading us to perceive a person, or in this case a company, to be “the other.” In those moments we give ourselves permission to treat “the other” as a stranger to be feared or eliminated. We counter this destructive pattern of “otherizing” with a creative one, based on the third spiritual practice, the imagination. Imagination Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “that which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, our character.” Such wisdom inspires the way Unitarian Universalists engage in global ministry: we seek to develop our moral imagination by picturing ourselves through the eyes of another. This prevents those of us in the organic community from demonizing the other, treating Monsanto to be feared. It prevents those of us in the biotech community from romanticizing the other, treating Monsanto as a company that can never do wrong. In this way, those of us from both the organic and biotech worldviews have engaged this public dialogue by making a covenant based on this simple idea: there is no stranger. We live this ethic by picturing ourselves in another’s shoes and thereby intimately weave our imagination with the practice of deep listening and loving speech, and most importantly, with the spiritual practice of doubt. These ways have been authentically lived out in the last nine months, leading us all to ask simply, “Are any of us really sure?” In that humbling moment we come to see a larger wisdom: “all of us are smarter than any one of us.” These spiritual practices were the basis for my direct communication with the CEO of Monsanto. I wrote him a public letter in November in the form of sermon, which asked him seven moral questions. These questions to Mr. Grant were just a few of the numerous conversations we’ve been having over these many moons. I will spend the rest of this talk summarizing, to the best of my ability, Monsanto’s responses to our question. I’ll then close by casting a vision for our continued ministry together.

    Monsanto’s Answers to Some of Our Questions Relationship with Farmers I asked Monsanto about their relationship with farmers, specifically, why were they investing over $10 million dollars annually for their legal team of 75 attorneys. I referenced articles and films that showed interviews with farmers who were sued for breaching technology agreements. They responded by saying that the media has sensationalized the mere dozen or so trials without seeing the big picture. They say, if the public would like to know the quality of their relationship with farmers they should ask those in the 13 million farms throughout the world that use Monsanto’s products, 12 million of which they say are smallholder farms. They explained that it takes seven to fourteen years to rollout a product and therefore they have the legal right to seek a return on that investment. They were assured by the courts and various scientific studies that Monsanto’s seeds could not have possibly, as critics say, “blown in on the wind” or be “carried by the birds;” rather, the Canadian Supreme court found one farmer in particular to have used Monsanto’s patented technology without permission. Monsanto seeks justice about such matters so as to protect the millions of farmers who responsibly honor their use agreements. Terminator Seeds They explained that they have not and will never produce “terminator seeds” – a sterile seed that would not produce offspring seeds for a second season. They want their farmers to succeed and produce more yield and in doing so they secure long-term clients. In response to the claim that Monsanto seeds are not producing the yields as advertised a senior scientist at Monsanto says the studies are inaccurate are not respected in the scientific community. The proof is found in the fact that “Farmers vote one spring at a time. You get invited back if you do a good job,” says Mr. Grant. They know they are doing a good job because “ninety percent of the U.S. soybean crop and 80% of the corn and cotton crops are grown with seeds containing Monsanto’s technology. Other countries are also growing Monsanto’s biotech crops, including India, with 20 million acres of cotton; Brazil with 35 million acres of soybeans; and Argentina, with 43 million acres of soybeans.” Volume of Herbicide and Pesticide Use When asked about the increased use of herbicide on Monsanto’s corn, soybean and cotton plants, they said the reports used by critics are inaccurate and outdated. They responded by saying that since 1996 farmers who use Monsanto’s seeds have seen a significant decrease in pesticide and herbicide use. For example, they state that in the U.S. alone, “farmers spend more than $3 billion annually on nitrogen fertilizer application.” To counter this practice they have been developing technology that decreases the use of nitrogen and its runoff in water supplies. Previous Environmental Damage I asked about the drinking water in Anniston, Alabama, which was contaminated because forty some years ago Monsanto dumped 45 tons of PCB pollutants in an open-pit landfill. In 2003, Monsanto and their spin-off company, Solutia, agreed to a $700 million dollar settlement because of this environmental damage. I also asked about them about their historical involvement in the development of DDT and Agent Orange used by the military in the Vietnam War to defoliate the environment. In response to these questions they explained that Monsanto has since developed a series of pledge statements, one of which says that Monsanto “will use sound and innovative science and thoughtful and effective stewardship to deliver high-quality products that are beneficial to our customers and to the environment.” In this way, they would speak of the “old” Monsanto as a chemical company and the “new” Monsanto as a foreword thinking biotech company that aims to feed the world’s hungry. Trust and Sincerity In multiple ways and at different times in the last nine months we’ve asked, “How can we trust the new Monsanto? How can we know these statements are sincere? How do we know they are authentic practices and not simply a public relations response?” The Senior Director of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainable Agriculture replied by saying, “We cannot force you to trust us. Trust is earned. Respect is earned. You’ll have to monitor us over time, and see whether or not we uphold our pledges. You’ll have to see if we respond to stakeholder concerns, and live out our commitment to transparency and dialogue.” In this context, we continued to practice deep listening and loving speech in order to go deeper into the various controversies and competing perceptions about Monsanto. Effects of GM Foods on Health of Animals and People We asked them about the international studies that found genetically modified crop-DNA in the milk, blood, liver, kidneys and intestinal tissues of animals who were fed genetically modified crops. Monsanto scientists explained that these researchers did not go through peer review and the findings were not replicated in other studies and even if they were, the protein IGF-1, which is used as a growth hormone for dairy cows, is naturally found in both animals and humans. They make clear that there is no peer review study that claims this protein is the cause of cancer. They say that “few proteins are known to be toxic” and very few families of proteins have the potential to induce food allergies when presented in a food matrix.” Monsanto believes that consumers can feel confident in their products because the reviews on Roundup Ready® soybeans, for example, have been completed by over 40 regulatory agencies, and approved by regulators in 23 countries and one region representing the 25 member countries of the European Union. If those regulations don’t give consumers confidence, they can simply examine current practices: “estimates suggest that as much as 80% of U.S. processed food may contain an ingredient from a genetically engineered crop, such as corn starch, high-fructose corn syrup, corn oil, canola oil, soybean oil, soy flower, soy lecithin, or cottonseed oil” Because of its widespread use of GM products, they feel secure that not only is there an absence of negative effects on the health of animals or people but their products can actually improve our health. For instance, they are currently using the genetic process to identify the omega-3 property found in algae so as to develop a tasteless oil that can not only lower the triglyceride level of people with heart disease but it can help the environment by not depleting fish stock. In this way, they intend to continue to fund research that will promote health in people all while achieving their pledge of environmental sustainability. Public Sector Research When asked about the legitimacy of their studies, we referenced a letter composed by a group of influential scientists who reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that Monsanto was preventing “university scientists from fully researching the effectiveness and environmental impact of the industry’s genetically modified crops.” One scientist from the University of Minnesota said, “If a company can control the research that appears in the public domain, they can reduce the potential negatives that can come out of any research.” In response to this letter the American Seed Trade Association gathered these scientists to develop a statement that assures Monsanto’s commitment to public sector research and encourages them to publish their findings in peer reviewed scientific or research journals. In this way, Monsanto has made the pledge to “share knowledge and technology to advance scientific understanding, to improve agriculture and the environment, to improve crops and to help farmers in developing countries.” International Aid I remember being at the shareholder meeting when another faith-based shareholder, a nun, approached the Director of Human Rights with the idea of sending non-genetically-modified hybrid seeds to Haiti. They were both concerned about the devastation from the earthquake and wanted to help farmers have the autonomy to grow their own food. Monsanto then worked with the Haitan Ministry of Agriculture and the U.S. Agency for International Development to donate more than 400 tons of conventional corn seeds. Critics said that Monsanto was going to contaminate the soil and exploit the Haitians for future profit. Monsanto found it ironic that their humanitarian efforts were perceived as causing harm when their previous donations of hybrid seed to the country of Malawi transformed “a region from a food aid recipient to a food exporter.” They worry that Haiti will do the same thing Zambia did in 2001 when during a famine the country rejected a cargo of donated corn because they perceived Monsanto’s products to be dangerous. Monsanto is aware that people fear what they do not understand and therefore it is their goal to help the public understand that biotechnology could solve the world’s hunger crisis. When Worldviews Collide Put simply the organic community perceives industrialized biotech efforts as a threat to natural food supplies, to biodiversity and food sovereignty. The biotech community perceives the organic movement to be a threat to environmental sustainability. One of the directors of Monsanto said she stays awake at night worrying that there won’t be enough food to feed a growing population. She believes that by using technology to produce more, for less money on less acreage, small farms throughout the world will have access to the recourses necessary to not only eat but to earn a living. The organic worldview, however, believes that we must eat natural foods, free from chemicals and genetic modification, and that we must eat locally. Monsanto employees think this is a false dualism. Monsanto’s mission includes empowering small farmers to succeed so that people can eat locally but they think the organic method is not sustainable nor realistic. They say, “organic fields cost $500 per acre to weed by hand, versus only $30 an acre for glyphosate-immune fields.” Don Cameron and cotton farmer in Helm, California says that he can’t even sell organic cotton because the stuff coming out of India, Syria and Uganda is so cheap. He says, “I feel the organic industry has painted itself in a corner saying that all genetically modified organisms are bad. Eventually they’re going to have to allow it,” he predicts. In this way, Monsanto hopes that farmers and consumers will have a wide range of organic, hybrid and genetically engineered options to ensure food security for all. Moreover they hope more farmers will gain access to the best technology so that they can not only produce food for themselves but Monsanto will guarantee the highest ethical standards of the farmers, as noted in their human rights efforts to end child labor.

    Human Rights: Child Labor According to the International Labor Organization more than 200 million children around the world are used as laborers, and most often than not are involved in the production of agriculture. Monsanto joined leading biotech companies throughout the world to eliminate child labor by requiring farmers to sign contracts that ensure no child will be working the fields but will instead be attending local schools, partially funded by these companies. In this way, they seek to not only promote human rights but also give farmers from throughout the world the opportunity to produce food. The Grant Oath So when asked whether Monsanto would develop a Hippocratic oath and vow to “do no harm, to do good and to be just” they replied uniformly by saying simply, “we already do no harm. We do a lot of good. We are just.” They say Monsanto already practices nonmaleficence, a term used in the field of biomedical ethics to inspire doctors to “do no harm.” Monsanto says that the good caused by biotechnology far outweighs any possible harm to the environment, to animals, or to people. Monsanto believes it is already practicing beneficence, generous acts of doing good, by developing virus-resistant papaya and sweet potatoes in Asia; insect-protected biotech cotton in India; and water efficient maize in Africa, which is expected to create 2 million additional tons of food. They say Monsanto is already upholding the third principle of biomedical ethics by practicing distributive justice and promoting the fair, equitable and appropriate distribution of food. They are committed to integrate these practices into the culture of Monsanto by requiring all employees to agree upon certain principles, such as never using human or animal DNA-traits in plants. They also require all employees to take a test about their human rights policies and if they do not receive a 100% they are asked to retake the test. These procedures are coupled with their corporate pledges, statements of aspiration based on integrity, dialogue, transparency, sharing and respect. In this way, Monsanto employees are proud of their company because they see themselves as not only scientists but as philanthropists and humanitarians aligned to feed the world’s hungry. Their sincere communication about these matters, leads us to ask the obvious question: if our proposal is develop a code of ethics for the field of biotechnology, and if Monsanto sees itself as abiding by the proposed ethics then why not adopt the oath? I have not yet received a formal answer to this question; however, it seems to me like all the right people are meeting at the right time to consider such a request. Together we have been rigorously listening to the seed that asks us, “Are you sure?” We have been consistently practicing deep listening and loving speech so as to not only get at the heart of these complex matters but to also use our moral imagination to picture the world through one another’s eyes. These spiritual practices have set the tone for our relationship, which is based on the desire to cultivate mutual respect and understanding, aware that understanding need not imply agreement. Conclusion The purpose of this sermon has therefore been to publicly archive the process to date, aware that the conversations will continue. We have spent the last nine months conceiving an idea that could potentially give birth to a code of ethics that could inspire future generations of biotech professionals. Such an oath would help them feel connected to something larger than themselves, something larger than any company pledge, or any norms their worldview permits. We are talking about planting the seed of consciousness in future generations of practitioners, just like many leaders have done in the parallel fields of medicine and law and education and ministry. But what are the pros and cons of such a code of ethics? At best, the adoption of such an oath can encourage generations of scientists to speak up about any possible harm their innovations may cause. Imagine if such an oath was in place when the “old” Monsanto was a chemical company. The contaminants previously left in the soil call the next generation of scientists to stand on higher ground. Aware that the “new” Monsanto is experiencing a renaissance and leading the relatively new field of biotechnology, we owe it one another and to future generations to build a global ethic that inspires us all to do no harm. At worst, such a request could be perceived as a dogmatic proposal from a righteous religious leader who seeks to coerce scientists to adopt his liberal agenda. In this way, it is important for me to recognize that the tone of my initial letter to Mr. Grant was fairly condescending and therefore not effective. I, too, must remember to ask the question, “Are you sure, Nate?” In doing so, the spiritual practice of doubt leads me not to push these particular words but rather to use this draft oath as a conversation starter. Is it possible for us to enter the creative process and redraft an oath that contains more wisdom than any one of us could singularly articulate? This question makes clear for me the next step we must take. I intend to invite four Monsanto employees to help redraft and then sign the oath. We will then approach a couple professionals at DuPont and then Bayer and then Syngenta. Once there is a critical mass, we will approach the CEOs of each company as ask for their participation in the creation of another draft. And it’s exciting to know that Emmy award winning filmmaker, Dana Flor, has agreed to document this process by producing a documentary about our ministry with Monsanto. And who knows, maybe some day in the not so distant future universities will confer an oath for future life scientists. What will that oath sound like? Only time will tell, but for now, this first draft reads simply, “I promise to use my expertise to help and not harm people, animals and the environment. I promise to practice responsibly the ancient ethic of stewardship and the modern principle of sustainability by affirming distributive justice as a moral obligation to benefit the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.” May it be so.

    Jul 18, 2010 at 11:23 pm
  • Rob Pickle

    As good a sermon as I have ever heard. Five Star!

    Jul 20, 2010 at 11:21 pm
  • Minehart

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    Jul 22, 2011 at 1:05 am